A Meager Reality

What it is Like to be Poor in America

Today in America, there are several societal forces that work to keep the poor fairly hidden from the rest of us. This is unfortunate. What these forces are, and how they work, are a subject for another day. To the extent that the poor are hidden, they are also isolated, both they from the middle class and the middle class from them. It has been this way for as long as I can remember. Many of us in the middle class, therefore, have little idea what daily life is like for the least of these. The path traveled by the poor in America is not an easy one, to be sure. It is a rugged path, filled with difficulties and beset by bandits. They deserve (yes, deserve) all the love and compassion we can give them. They are God’s children. They are the least of these. 

Scant Choices, Few Options 

A great majority of the options available to most in America today derive from our possession of money, even if it is not that much money. It is difficult to overstate this fact, that choices are made available by money. It is also difficult to overstate how much most of us take this for granted. It is very easy for most of us to drive down to a convenience store and grab a soda, so long as we have a car with gas in it and a buck. Many of the poor have none of these things. They cannot go where they want when they want, and they cannot have many of the simple things the rest of us take for granted. The lack of choices also applies to things like health care and dental care. Even basic necessities like food and clothing are out of reach. As I write this, many children are preparing to return to school, and poor parents are wondering how they are going to purchase needed school supplies.

Sometimes, the poor will find assistance from the rest of us, be that through government programs or through charity. While the greatest majority of the poor will be grateful for this assistance, it is nonetheless true that in this assistance, they typically have little choice. They must take what they are given, even if it is not exactly what they wanted.

Having so little choice has consequences, especially for the chronically poor. They are very often left feeling powerless, and without any control at all. Many of the poor truly are victims, but I think that almost all of them must feel as if they are. 

Subjected to Many 

Being poor in America means being subjected to many masters. Being dependent on government programs (and many poor depend on more than one) has consequences. The forms and questions are often intrusive. Many government benefits require applicants to wait in long lines, sometimes periodically. Here in Arizona, it is not uncommon for a trip to DES (Department of Economic Security) to take all day (literally, eight hours). Social Security, disability, food stamps, unemployment, medicaid, and a host of other government programs each have their own rules and requirements. Each require the poor to do things that any of us would find burdensome.

It doesn’t end there. Often, others will chime in with advice that however well intended, is not helpful. This can feel like just one more person telling them what to do. Sometimes, the mere implications of our actions will lead the poor to believe that they are both ignored and that they are sent off to consider how they might improve themselves. 


Every single day, the poor prove that the things that many of us in the middle class consider to be absolute necessities are indeed luxuries. One example is air conditioning (remember, I am writing this in Phoenix, AZ), another is dental care. Every week I am grateful to be able to meet people who are doing without either of these, and some of these people are children. I am grateful because I need to be reminded that I am greatly blessed, and I need to be reminded often. I also am grateful to be able to meet (and assist) people who have not eaten in several days (here in Arizona, food stamps never seem to be sufficient to get a family through a month). Being poor in America means having to endure many more discomforts than those of us in the middle class. It must be emphasized that very often, these discomforts are long term, and must seem unending to those suffering them. 

Get a Job! 

I know a woman, who when she was 16 years old got her first job at McDonald’s. She was very excited, and very nervous. She was nervous because she was afraid that she would lose her job when it was discovered that she could not read (the reason she could not read, by the way, was because she had to stay home from school to care for her siblings while her mother was on drugs). There are many reasons why the poor do not have jobs. With some of the poor, it is their own fault that they are not employed, but with others it is not. One thing that I believe to be almost universally true is that unemployed poor know that they need to get a job. They know it, but often their heart gets in the way. Some are frustrated in this poor economy, and have given up. Others fear the humiliation of having their lack of skills exposed. I have met several who have been abused by previous employers, and so fear future abuse.

In my experience, it does little good, and sometimes significant harm, to tell an unemployed person to get a job. They already know that – in their head. If you really want to help them, deal (gently) with the barrier that is in their heart.

In any case, unemployment, and especially long term unemployment, leaves people feeling worthless. This leads to a terrible spiral, because a person who feels worthless feels like he is not worth hiring. 

Crushing Boredom 

A person with no job, no money, no car, has nothing to do but sit around all day and look at the walls. Think about that for a moment, and you may begin to understand some of the personality quirks we see in today’s poor. 

The Legal System 

More times than I would like to remember, I have been in court, doing what I can to help a family through a difficult situation. One of the most important of my duties is to explain what happened in court to the family afterwards. Our court system is overwhelmed, and so they move fast. The judge and the lawyers talk fast and they use really big words. Since the poor are frequently undereducated, they leave the courtroom with little understanding of what just happened, except that their loved one is now locked away. This is not only incredibly depressing for them, but it also leads very easily to suspicions of racial inequities. It is bad enough when little Johnny gets locked away, it is doubly bad when there is little understanding why. 

The Lack of Security 

The poor often live in neighborhoods that make it much more likely that they will themselves fall victim to burglary, assault, or worse. Being so victimized leads so easily to anger. So much anger. This can be compounded by the perception that the same police that arrested those they love (see previous section) are slow to assist in their moment of need. In such situations, the temptation to take matters into your own hands is strong. 

The Answer 


As St. Vincent de Paul once said: 

You will find that charity is a heavy burden to carry, heavier than the bowl of soup and the basket of bread.
But, you must keep your gentleness and your smile. It is not enough to give bread and soup, this the rich can do.  You are the servant of the poor.
They are your masters, terribly sensitive and exacting as you will see;
but, the uglier and dirtier they are, the more unjust and bitter, the more you must give them of your love.  
It is because of your love, only your love, that the poor will forgive you the bread you give them.
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